May 31, 2007

Sean Parnell: Twist in recycled sewage

SMALL concentrations of antibiotics have the ability to pass through conventional wastewater treatment plants, according to a new study that will reignite the debate over the use of recycled sewage.

An article this month in the international journal Water Research found small concentrations of antibiotics passed through advanced wastewater treatment using microfiltration and reverse osmosis.

The National Research Centre for Environmental Toxicology, the Co-operative Research Centre for Water Quality and Treatment and the National Measurement Institute assessed the removal of28 human and veterinary antibiotics.

With the Beattie Government hoping to pump recycled sewage into Wivenhoe Dam before Brisbane's main water supply runs dry - in late 2008 or early 2009 - the Queensland Water Commission has gone to great lengths to emphasise the safety of the end product. A panel of experts is guiding its regulatory processes, even as protest groups - angry at being denied a referendum on the use of recycled sewage - distribute leaflets warning of potential health risks.

Lead researcher Andrew Watkinson said last night the additional process in Brisbane's recycled water pipeline project, advanced oxidation, would almost certainly remove the remaining concentrations.

Mr Watkinson said the research had shown concentrations of antibiotics in many Brisbane rivers and waterways, flowing from conventional treatment plants. Although there appeared little risk to human and animal health, further work was needed to determine whether the concentrations might contribute to bacterial resistance to the drugs.

May 30, 2007

Bridie Smith: Switched-on kids switch off in class

CHILDREN are losing up to half an hour's sleep a night because of technology such as mobile phones, electronic games and television, according to a study that shows the less sleep they get, the less effective they are in the classroom.

The University of South Australia study found children aged 10 to 15 were getting at least 30 minutes less sleep a night compared with their peers 20 years ago.

Jim Dollman from the School of Health Sciences said the TVs, computers and electronic games that had moved into children's bedrooms in the past two decades could be a significant factor in explaining the later bed-time.

In 1985, a survey found there was no difference between boys' and girls' sleep time. Dr Dollman found that by 2004 boys had lost 33 minutes of sleep time and girls 28 minutes. "It may well be related to a greater commitment to electronic entertainment that boys have compared to girls," he said.

In 1985 students slept for an average nine hours and 15 minutes, compared with eight hours and 45 minutes in 2004. The data was taken from the 1985 Australian Schools Health and Fitness Survey and the 2004 South Australian Physical Activity Survey, with both surveys involving students at the same cluster of schools.

The recommended sleep time for adolescents is eight to 10 hours, while for children aged eight to 12 it was nine to 11 hours' sleep. Dr Dollman said children were now just scraping into the recommended sleep time.

Symptoms of sleep deprivation could have short and long-term implications in the classroom, he said, with academic development hampered by poor concentration and lethargy.

May 29, 2007

Web tool to digitise books

RESEARCHERS in Pittsburgh have found a way to enlist people to help digitise books every time they solve a simple word puzzle.

The word puzzles are known as CAPTCHAs, short for "completely automated public Turing tests to tell computers and humans apart". They are commonly used to register at websites or buy things online.

Computers cannot decipher the twisted letters and numbers, ensuring that real people and not automated programs are using the websites.

Carnegie Mellon University researchers estimate that about 60 million of those nonsensical jumbles are solved everyday around the world, taking an average of about 10 seconds each to decipher and type in.

Instead of wasting time typing in random letters and numbers, the researchers have come up with a way for people to type in snippets of books to put their time to good use, confirm they are not machines and help speed up the process of getting searchable texts online.

"Humanity is wasting 150,000 hours every day on these," said Luis von Ahn, an assistant professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon.

He helped develop the CAPTCHAs about seven years ago.

"Is there any way in which we can use this human time for something good for humanity, do 10 seconds of useful work for humanity?"

Many large projects are under way now to digitise books and put them online, and that is mostly being done by scanning pages of books so that people can "page through" the books online.
In some cases, optical character recognition, or OCR, is being used to digitise books to make the texts searchable.

But von Ahn said OCR does not always work on text that is older, faded or distorted.

May 27, 2007

Ben Goldacre: The art of decorative electronics

Normally I'd ignore quack medical devices, but when the catalogue from Health Products For Life - run by vitamin pill salesman Patrick Holford - arrived, I found an unexpected treat waiting for me. Among his usual "special formulation" pill-peddling banter, there was the QLink pendant, at just £69.99.

The QLink is a device sold to protect you from those terrifying invisible electromagnetic rays, and cure many ills. "It needs no batteries as it is 'powered' by the wearer - the microchip is activated by a copper induction coil which picks up sufficient micro currents from your heart to power the pendant." Says Holford's catalogue. According to the manufacturer's sales banter, it corrects your energy frequencies. Or something.

It has been flattered by the Times, the Mail on Sunday, and ITV's London Today, and I can see why. It's a very sciencey looking pendant, a bit like a digital memory card for a camera, with eight contact pads on the circuit board on the front, a hi-tech electronic component mounted in the centre, and a copper coil around the edge.

Last summer I obtained one of these devices (from somewhere cheaper than Holford's shop) and took it to Camp Dorkbot, an annual festival for dorks held - in a joke taken too far - at a scout camp outside Dorking. Here in the sunshine, some of the nation's cheekiest electronics geeks examined the QLink. We chucked probes at it, and tried to detect any "frequencies" emitted, with no joy. And then we did what any proper dork does when presented with an interesting device: we broke it open. Drilling down, the first thing we came to was the circuit board. This, we noted with some amusement, was not in any sense connected to the copper coil, and therefore is not powered by it.

The eight copper pads do have some intriguing looking circuit board tracks coming out of them, but they too, on close inspection, are connected to absolutely nothing. A gracious term to describe their purpose might be "decorative". I'm also not clear if I can call something a "circuit board" when there is no "circuit".

Finally, there is a modern surface mount electronic component soldered to the centre of the device. It looks impressive, but whatever it is, it is connected to absolutely nothing. Close examination with a magnifying glass, and experiments with a multimeter and oscilloscope, revealed that this component on the "circuit board" is a zero-ohm resistor.

This is simply a resistor that has pretty much no resistance: in effect a bit of wire in a tiny box. It might sound like an absurd component, but they're quite common in modern circuits, because they can be used to bridge the gap between adjacent tracks on a circuit board with a standard-size component. I'd like to apologise both for knowing that and for sharing it with you.

Now to be fair, such a component is not cheap. I'm assuming this is an extremely high quality surface mount resistor, manufactured to very high tolerances - well calibrated, and sourced in small quantities. You buy them on paper tape in 7in reels, each reel containing about 5,000 resistors. You could easily pay as much as £0.005 for such a resistor. Sorry, I was being sarcastic. They are very cheap indeed.

And that's it. No microchip. A coil connected to nothing. And a zero-ohm resistor, which costs half a penny, and is connected to nothing. I contacted to discuss my findings. They kindly contacted the inventor, who informed me they have always been clear the QLink does not use electronics components "in a conventional electronic way". And apparently the energy pattern reprogramming work is done by some finely powdered crystal embedded in the resin. Oh, hang on, I get it: it's a new age crystal pendant.

May 25, 2007

Exercise Reverses Signs Of Ageing

Scientists in Canada suggest that twice weekly sessions of resistance exercise training using standard gym equipment can reverse the signs of ageing in the skeletal muscles of the over 65s.

You can read the full text of their article in the new Public Library of Science's international, peer-reviewed, open-access, online publication PLoS One.

One of the signs of ageing is weakening of skeletal muscles and increasing dysfunction of their mitochondria.

Mitochondria are tiny energy units within every cell of the body. They have their own DNA code that is separate from the DNA in the cell's nucleus, and they control a number of cellular processes such as energy supply. As muscles get older and weaker, the mitchondria inside their cells show increasing evidence of dysfunction.

Mitochondrial dysfunction is measured by counting the number of mistakes they make when they transcribe their DNA code to make essential materials like proteins. A "transcription profile" or "gene expression profile" is a measure of how well a person's mitochondria are working.

A research team led by Dr Simon Melov from McMaster University Medical Centre in Hamilton, Ontario, took two groups of male and female volunteers. One group, comprised 26 "young adults" aged from 20 to 35 years, and the other group comprised 25 "old adults" over 65.

At the start of the study, they took skeletal muscle biopsies from both groups, from which they were able to assess their transcription profile. They also tested their muscle strength.

14 of the old adults then completed a 26-week whole body resistance exercise-training programme based on stretching and weight-bearing exercise on gym equipment that involved 3 sets of 10 repetitions for each muscle group, including for instance leg press, chest press, leg extension, leg flexion, shoulder press, and lat pull-down. The sessions lasted one hour and took place twice a week.

Comparing the results before and after the exercise programme, Melov and his team found that the old adults improved their strength significantly compared to the young adults. Before the programme the old adults were 59 per cent weaker than the young adults. After the programme they were only 38 per cent weaker.

But the more remarkable result was the dramatic change in the transcription profile of the old adults.

Before the exercise programme the old adults had mitochondrial transcription profiles consistent with ageing, but after the programme, they became more like the transcription profiles of the young adults.

Both groups were comparable in all aspects of health and lifestyle, apart from age. They were healthy, were not on medication, and had similar diets. They did the same amount of physical activity every day, in that the researchers deliberately chose more sedentary young people and more active old people (relative to their own age groups), to emphasize the point that the study was about ageing and not about inactivity versus activity.

The detailed way in which the transcription profiles were compared is described in the study. It involved examining 596 different genes that before exercise training showed a "dramatic enrichment of genes associated with mitochondrial function with age". But after the training the "transcriptional signature of aging was markedly reversed back to that of younger levels for most genes that were affected by both age and exercise".

Melov and colleagues said that their results strongly supported the notion that mitochondrial dysfunction is linked to ageing in humans. But the exciting discovery is finding out that resistance training reverses many aspects of this.

They concluded that:

"Healthy older adults show evidence of mitochondrial impairment and muscle weakness, but that this can be partially reversed at the phenotypic level, and substantially reversed at the transcriptome level, following six months of resistance exercise training."

May 22, 2007 to host corporate mashups this week is expected to announce a way move data between different applications using its online development platform.

At the company's first developer conference, executives will introduce Salesforce SOA, an extension to its Apex programming language that allows developers to integrate different applications via Web services protocols. Salesforce will host and run the custom-written integration code.

People can already write mashups that run within a browser, such as an application that displays customer information from Salesforce's sales application on a Web mapping service.

Salesforce SOA, by contrast, does the integration between programs on the server, which allows for more sophisticated scenarios, said Adam Gross, vice president of developer relations at

A mashup could, for example, let someone display and manipulate customer information on a Google Web-based spreadsheet.

Salesforce has modified Apex so that people can handle the files, called Web Services Description Language (WSDL) files, that allow programmers to get information from Web services, Gross said.

May 20, 2007

Fat advocate rebutted

A VISITING American food author who promotes eating butter, lard and raw milk and calls low-fat diets "dangerous" has been slammed by Australian dietitians who say her advice flies in the face of contemporary health guidelines.

Sally Fallon, the best-selling co-author of Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook That Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition And The Diet Dictocrats, says people should eat more saturated fat and cholesterol, such as full-fat dairy products and fatty cuts of meat and offal to lose weight and improve their health.

Ms Fallon has a growing grassroots following in Australia and is touring the country to promote her philosophy, which is based on research by American dentist Weston A. Price of 14 isolated tribes worldwide in the 1920s and 1930s.

She said governments and the agricultural industry had conspired to demonise animal foods to make people buy processed products filled with refined carbohydrates, sugars, soya products and vegetable oils.

"What we've been told about fats is not true," she said. "Butter made from grass-fed animals is one of the healthiest foods on the planet but governments are telling us it's yellow poison."

Almost all nutritionists recommend limiting the amount of saturated fats in a daily diet as they increase the risk of heart disease by raising blood cholesterol levels.

Trent Watson of the Dietitians Association of Australia said the Weston A. Price Foundation's message would only further confuse an already muddled population.

May 17, 2007

Stelarc, Australian artist, implants ear inside arm

Earlier this year, Stelarc finally found a medical doctor willing to implant a cell-cultivated ear beneath the skin on the artist's forearm. The resulting body-mod is shown here. Stelarc is apparently planning to go through a few more surgeries to give it more definition."He's also going to implant a mic inside the ear that will connect to a bluetooth transmitter, so the ear can broadcast audio from the internet wirelessly," explains former BB guestblogger and sometimes Stelarc collaborator Karen Marcelo. "That Stelarc, always got something up his sleeve! He likes to say that too. "

He also has a walking robotic head (photos: 1, 2).

May 15, 2007

Elizabeth Gosch: Home births call 'dangerous'

A LEADING West Australian doctor has labelled a government proposal to increase home births dangerous to mums and babies.

State Health Minister Jim McGinty has released a draft policy on maternity care and called for more women to have their babies at home instead of in hospital.

"In England and Europe, home births are commonplace," Mr McGinty said. "It's only here in Australia that we have almost an obsession with a medical intervention model when it comes to childbirth. We currently fund only 150 home births a year. I want to see that expanded."

But Australian Medical Association WA treasurer Rosanna Capolingua said Mr McGinty's suggestion that hospital births were unnatural was worrying.

"He has suggested that too many women are opting for 'unnatural births' in hospitals. This is worrying because he is putting guilt on women who want to have hospital births," Dr Capolingua said...

Joe Spagnolo: Need for birthing at home

MORE WA women should have their babies at home without medical or surgical intervention, Health Minister Jim McGinty says.
He said women should consider home births as an option to having their babies in hospitals.
Mr McGinty shadowed spending of millions of dollars to boost midwifery services in WA and build family birthing centres.

Releasing a draft maternity care policy, Mr McGinty said too many women opted for hospital births.

He denied trying to save the WA Health system money by having pregnant women give birth at home, but wanted to challenge views that mums should only have babies in hospitals.

"We (State Government) currently fund only 150 home births a year. I want to see that expanded,'' Mr McGinty said.

"`In England and Europe (home births) are commonplace. It's only here in Australia that we have almost an obsession with a medical intervention model when it comes to childbirth. Child birth is not an illness.

For most women, it should be a natural experience. For some who have complications hospitals are fine. Those women need high technology medical intervention to deliver their babies, but for most women childbirth should be a natural experience.''

He said WA had very high rates of medical intervention.

WA's midwifery program last year was funded for 150 home births, but there had been a demand for many more, manager Karen Krute said.

Dr Jennifer Fenwick, associate professor of midwifery at Curtin University, said surgical births in WA, such as caesareans, were used inappropriately: ``Women are using things that they don't need to, like epidurals and ultra sounds. Normal, healthy women are having three ultrasounds during their pregnancies, that's crazy.''

Soldier blogger wins Blooker Prize

A former US machine gunner's irreverent memoir about his year fighting in Iraq has won the Blooker prize for the best book of the year based on a blog.

My War: Killing Time in Iraq by Colby Buzzell was awarded the £5000 ($A12,000) prize today, beating out 110 entries from 15 countries.

The late Kurt Vonnegut wrote to Buzzell praising the book and US blogging queen Arianna Huffington, a Blooker judge, called it "an unfiltered, often ferocious expression of his boots-on-the-ground view of the Iraq war".

But Buzzell, 31, said he would have never written it had it not been for the encouragement from readers of the anonymous online journal he started in his free time in a war zone.

"I went into it without any aspirations," he said yesterday before learning he had won. "It was just a way for me to deal with what I was going through."

In the eight weeks before the US army stopped him from blogging, book agents started emailing him. His book has since been published by Penguin and translated in seven languages.

Some literary circles may look down on books that began as blogs, Buzzell said, but for an ordinary person who has a story to tell, blog writing can have unrivalled immediacy and power.

"I wrote that stuff right after events happened with my ears still ringing," he said by telephone from his home in San Francisco.

Blooker organiser Peter Freedman said a growing number of publishers see the potential of blogs to be adapted to books, adding he was surprised at how many of this year's nominations came from established publishing companies.

"Many of these bloggers come with a significant following," Freedman said. "The internet in a way is a part of a giant talent hunt for grass roots writers."

The prize is in its second year. Last year's winner Julie and Julia is now being adapted into a film by When Harry Met Sally director Nora Ephron.

That book began life as a blog, chronicling author Julie Powell's yearlong attempt to cook all 524 recipes in Julia Child's classic 1961 cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

The Blooker was inspired by the trend of publishers turning internet content into traditional book form," Freedman said.

"It struck us as interesting that with everyone talking about a brave new world, people still want print and bound books," he said.

The prize is sponsored by, a website that wants to make that process even easier by doing for books what YouTube has done for video sharing. Anyone can post an electronic book on Lulu for readers to buy. Then using cheap printing technology, Lulu can publish a copy at a competitive price and mail it to the buyer.

Search for cause of pancreatic cancer

AUSTRALIAN researchers searching for the cause of pancreatic cancer said they are racing against time to find and test patients, as many die within weeks of being diagnosed.

Scientists want to recruit 900 sufferers over five years for a major study seeking to identify any common genetic or environmental factors that put patients at higher risk of contracting the disease.

But Queensland Institute of Medical Research epidemiologist Dr Rachel Neale said a major challenge was that sufferers faced a poor prognosis and researchers had a very limited period in which to interview them.

"People are diagnosed late in the course of the disease and quite often become unwell quite quickly," Dr Neale said.

"That's not always the case ... but certainly it makes this disease particularly challenging to study."

Pancreatic cancer is the fourth most common cause of cancer death in western countries and many patients die within weeks of a diagnosis.

Fewer than one in 20 patients are still alive five years later.

May 14, 2007

Autism costing Aust up to $7b: report

A new report has found the treatment of autism and related conditions such as Asperger syndrome are costing the Australian economy up to $7 billion a year.

It was commissioned by Dr James Morton, one of the founders of the Autism Early Intervention Outcomes Unit.

Dr Morton says the report's release in Brisbane today has been timed to mark the start of Autism Awareness Week.

"It's really gone under the radar. It's exploded in the last 10 years. Some of the studies suggests that the incidence has increased 10-fold in the last decade," he said.

"I think that is why it's caught government unawares. It wasn't anywhere near the problem it is now 10 years ago."

Dr Morton says the official response to the rising incidence of autism has been too little, too late.

Study proves you don't snooze, you lose

SLEEP deprivation causes people to make stupid decisions because it affects a "casino" in the brain, US scientists have found.

Researchers scanned the brains of volunteers as they gambled on a computer programmed to simulate real-life decisions.

Participants who were deprived of sleep soon started showing signs of rash risk-taking.

In their brains, a region called the nucleus accumbens, which is involved with the anticipation of reward, became more active when risky choices that promised a high pay-off were made.

At the same time, losses triggered a reduced response in the insula, a brain region that helps evaluate the emotional significance of events.

The findings add to research showing that sleep-deprived volunteers undergoing similar tests take more risks while displaying less concern for the consequences.

The new study, published in the journal Sleep, employed a standard psychological gambling experiment in which participants have to choose between pairs of "good" and "bad" decks of cards.

Certain cards secure a real cash reward, while others result in losses.

Although the winnings from the "bad" decks are higher, so are the potential losses.

Michael Chee, one of the researchers at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, said the experiment did not proceed far enough for the volunteers to make wrong decisions.

May 13, 2007

Urine-Powered Battery Developed

Physicists in Singapore have succeeded in creating the first paper battery that generates electricity from urine. This new battery will be the perfect power source for cheap, disposable healthcare test-kits for diseases such as diabetes. This research was published Aug. 15 in the Institute of Physics' Journal of Micromechanics and Microengineering.

Scientists in research groups around the world are trying to design ever smaller "biochips" that can test for a variety of diseases at once, give instant results, and, crucially, be mass produced cheaply. But until now, no one has been able to solve the problem of finding a power source as small and as cheap to fabricate as the detection technology itself.

Led by Dr Ki Bang Lee, a research team at Singapore's Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN) have developed a paper battery that is small, cheap to fabricate, and which ingeniously uses the fluid being tested (urine) as the power source for the device doing the testing.

The chemical composition of urine is widely used as a way of testing for tell-tale signs of various diseases and also as an indicator of a person's general state of health. The concentration of glucose in urine is a useful diagnostic tool for diabetics. The lead researcher, Dr Lee, envisions a world where people will easily be able to monitor their health at home using disposable test-kits that don't need lithium batteries or external power sources.

Vaccine To Control High Blood Pressure

British scientists have reportedly developed a vaccine to control high blood pressure. t could save tens of thousands of lives a year in the UK alone, according to The Daily Mail. Drug firm Protherics says the vaccine, which is based on a protein found in limpets, will allow people to easily control blood pressure.

The condition, which affects a third of all adults, doubles the risk of dying from heart disease or stroke. "Improving compliance in this way could save thousands from life-threatening complications such as heart attack or stroke," the company's Dr Andrew Heath told the newspaper. The vaccine has been tested on people with few reported side-effects, but the Cheshire-based company is planning trials of an improved version. Patients would probably be given an initial course of three injections, with a booster every six months.

Baby boomers' wear and tear

They were the first full generation of children to have the polio vaccine, the first young adults to have the birth control pill and the first middle-agers to have widespread access to hair transplants, laser eye surgery and Viagra. But for all the promise it held of enjoying the most active and attractive of retirement years, the baby boom generation may not live up to its own hype. A growing body of data suggests that baby boomers may be aging more poorly than previous generations - a trend not only personally disappointing to the self-help generation but disturbing to health providers who predict overtaxed medical services and bankrupting costs.

The Washington Post reports that boomers, often characterized as ambitious and robust, are plagued at higher rates than were their parents at similar ages by high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and difficulty performing everyday functions such as climbing stairs and carrying small weights. Some health observers say the findings could be a result of earlier diagnosis of problems - a positive, health-wise - or simply more whining from self-centered boomers. But many medical experts look at more ominous trends, primarily the sharp increase in obesity and self-reporting of stress.

Nearly two-thirds of American adults are overweight, and a recent Rand Corp. study showed a huge jump in morbid obesity in the last five years - a 50 percent increase in the number of adults at least 100 pounds overweight, and a 75 percent increase in those who are even heavier. Not all of those are baby boomers, but researchers following the generation - such as the federally funded Health and Retirement Study - say obesity is a probable factor in the jump in blood pressure and diabetes.

That's trouble not just for baby boomers but for everyone.

Farmers delight at new food fad

The purple-striped 'melumber' - officially known as the pepino - tastes like a cross between a melon and a cucumber.

It has just gone on sale in Britain and claims of its health benefits meant it sold out within hours.

There is a waiting list for the next batch of the South American fruit - a relative of the tomato - at London store Selfridges.

Ewan Venters, of the department store, said: "We initially had a stock of 30 and sold out on the first day.

"We now have a waiting list of customers eager to try this new 'vegefruit'."

Pepinos have a high potassium content, which can help lower blood pressure, and are packed with vitamins A, B and C - all of which protect against cancer and heart disease. They are also ideal for dieters as a 100g serving contains only 23 calories.

The seeded fruit is shaped like a melon and grows to about the size of a goose egg. It can be eaten as a pudding or an appetiser.

When introduced into Japan, the pepino started a craze and its price soon outstripped that of meat.

In the Far East the fruits are often wrapped, boxed and tied with ribbons to be given as gifts.

While common across South America, pepinos have rarely been seen in Europe, although enterprising farmers in France have started growing them.

Not Lost in Space

In Star Trek terms, it was a simple mission. But the company that blasted the ashes of James Doohan - better known as Scotty - into space has been forced to admit that the rocket they used has been lost. The plan was simple: the actor's remains, along with those of 213 others, were put on board a rocket to be fired into 'sub-orbital space'.

The craft would shoot upwards 72 miles before splitting in two and parachuting back to Earth so the ashes could be returned to relatives. But the mission went drastically wrong and the rocket has been lost for two weeks in the New Mexico desert. Susan Schonfeld, of Space Services Inc, said that search teams has repeatedly failed to find the craft in the area where it is believed to have landed.

She said: "The terrain is very mountainous - it's not somewhere that you can walk or drive to and the weather there has been horrendous." The disaster will upset Doohan's widow, Wende, who has been planning the send-off for two years since his death in 2005 at the age of 85.

May 12, 2007

R A Leng: The morality of biofuels

Escalating energy costs and the growing fear of climate change have encouraged a headlong rush to renewable energy. Biofuel from biomass is emerging as a preferred source of liquid energy for transport - but the huge areas of agricultural land that are being, or will be, diverted from food production pose questions about the morality of industrial-scale biofuels development.

These industrial biofuels are mainly ethanol from starch and sugar crops and oil from oilseed crops such as canola and oil palm. In the background, cellulosic alcohol production is receiving close attention as biotechnology research attempts to develop new ways to convert complex structural carbohydrates to soluble sugars for conversion to ethanol.

Diversion of land from food to biofuels production is already driving up the price of food: Mexican maize prices have doubled in the last year forcing the government to put a ceiling on tortilla prices. Sugar prices have also doubled, while construction of distilleries in the USA and South America is only now taking off. Virtually all countries are now considering biofuels production from various crop sources. In general these will be grown on land that previously grew food or else is newly-cleared forest country. And these fuels will be produced by industrial processes that lower the net energy yield. Subsidized agribusiness has bought into biofuels with expectations of high profits.

The industrial production of biofuels threatens to create conflict over food for humans, feed for animals and feedstocks for liquid energy sources.

In 2006 about 17% of the US corn crop was converted to ethanol and supplied 2% of the nation’s auto fuel. The Earth Policy Institute predicts ethanol production will claim 50 percent (or 140 million metric tones,mmt) of US corn in 2008, with 79 new ethanol plants due to come on line in the next two years. This will double ethanol capacity at a time when world grain stocks are at their lowest level in 25 years and falling. By 2020 alcohol production could remove conservatively 400 mt of grain from world food -feed markets, either directly or by diversion of land from food crops. If maize was the sole source of the feedstock, President Bush's call for the USA to produce 35 billion gallons of renewable fuel by 2017 would require about 320 mt of maize - more than the present annual production.

May 11, 2007

Peter Williams: Expert warns against recycled water

RECYCLED waste water should be used for drinking only as a last resort, an infectious diseases expert said today.

Several Australian states and the ACT are considering the use of recycled water as a response to critical shortages.

Professor Peter Collignon, director of infectious diseases and microbiology at ACT Pathology, told a senate inquiry the water would be better used for non-drinking purposes.

"I think we should recycle as much as possible. My viewpoint is, that last option should be putting it into our drinking water," Prof Collignon said.

"We should find all other ways of using water for irrigation, watering our ovals, all those things so that we have as pristine as possible the water we're using for drinking."

Prof Collignon said purifying water of sewage had historically been a major cause of public health improvement.

"We're going to now, instead of separating it, physically put it back in," he said.

May 9, 2007

Malnutrition widespread in elderly patients

MOST elderly Australians admitted to hospital are suffering malnutrition, which significantly reduces their chance of recovering from an illness or accident.

A study of 102 patients admitted to Sydney's Prince of Wales Hospital last year revealed almost 80 per cent were malnourished or at great risk of malnutrition, based on a review of their weight, food intake and overall health. The study found that patients who received help from a dietician halved their length of stay in hospital.

"The results were startling," said lead researcher Terry Bolin, associate professor of medicine at the University of NSW.

"The findings were staggering to us, but the outcomes after early intervention with a dietician were extraordinarily good."

Associate Professor Bolin said a lack of access to quality food, difficulty cooking and eating, a lack of appetite and poor absorption of food associated with ageing might all be responsible for the high rate of malnutrition.

"What we've exposed is the tip of the iceberg. Malnourishment doesn't just happen out of the blue. I'd suggest that in these individuals, it's been going on for several years.

"Elderly patients may appear to be a healthy weight but in fact be malnourished so body mass index alone is a poor indicator."

Associate Professor Bolin said the problem was largely overlooked. "It's in great contrast to the concern we have over the obesity epidemic. Unfortunately, nutrition and malnutrition are not priorities for physicians and surgeons and only come to notice when a patient's recovery is not progressing. Often this is too late. This study highlights the need for a new approach from healthcare professionals and government."

Margaret Holyday, manager of the Prince of Wales department of nutrition and dietetics, said malnourished patients had a slower recovery rate and were more likely to be readmitted to hospital.

Lamest 'Value-Added' Products

As every trillionaire knows, the easiest way to turn a quick profit is to take something that's just lying around, put your name on it and sell it in huge quantities.

Doing something that adds concrete value to the product is usually required but lately, the value-adding standards have been slipping. We've tested samples of several new products -- all, as it happens, perfectly transparent -- that epitomize this sort of value-adding laziness.

This Southern California spring water is pumped, purified and bottled with a plain, hippie-ish label. Before it's shipped, the employees "charge the water in the storage facility with sound and music with intent," supposedly infusing a sacred vibration into the water.

H2Om comes in "Love" and "Perfect Health" varieties. More are coming soon, including "Prosperity," "Gratitude" and "Indigo: Dr. Emoto's Hexagonal Structured Water." Each 16.9-ounce bottle costs about $3. It tastes like water.

Fraudulent claims cost $10 billion per year

Fraudulent insurance claims are now costing insurers and honest customers over £4 million every day, according to figures released today by the ABI (Association of British Insurers). Initial findings from ABI research estimate the annual cost of insurance fraud to be £1.6 billion.

In the survey, one-in-ten adults admitted to having cheated on their insurance. These cheats push up the cost of insurance, adding nearly £40 to the average premium paid each year by honest policyholders.

Key findings of the survey of nearly 7,000 adults commissioned by the ABI and carried out by YouGov reveal that:

  1. One in ten adults - 5million people - admit to having made a fraudulent claim on a general insurance policy, such as home or motor insurance.
  2. Opportunistic fraud carried out by individual customers alone costs over £800 million a year.
  3. The home is the richest source for insurance cheats: around half the cost dishonest claims occur under home contents and buildings insurance.

Nick Starling, the ABI’s Director of General Insurance and Health, said:
"Honest customers should not have pay for the cheats. Insurers are committed to reducing the fraud problem. We are devoting greater resources to weeding out the cheats, and working together to detect and combat fraud. The Insurance Fraud Bureau is already having a significant impact on tackling organised insurance fraud."

“These figures highlight that greater deterrents, such as criminal prosecutions, are needed to discourage fraud. This is why we are calling for police forces to be given more resources so that fraud can be treated with the seriousness it deserves”.

Adam Cresswell: Health research gets $500m shot in arm

RESEARCH institutes will share in a near $500 million windfall that will create six new facilities dedicated to developing innovative drugs and new treatments for conditions ranging from childhood diseases such as cerebral palsy to cancer, heart disease and mental problems.

Two centres - Brisbane's Princess Alexandra Hospital and the University of Queensland, and the Western Australian Institutes for Health in Perth - are the biggest winners, each receiving $100 million.

The Brisbane centre, which is backed by former Australian of the Year Ian Frazer and already has $100 million from the Queensland Government, will be the southern hemisphere's first research facility capable of developing drugs all the way through to the commercialisation stage.

Professor Frazer said he had been "keeping my fingers crossed” that the Government would approve the $100 million application for the Brisbane centre.

The $100 million for Western Australia will allow two new research facilities to be built in Perth, centralising existing research centres that will house 2000 researchers by 2010, to expand work looking for new treatments for genetic diseases such as cancer, asthma, childhood diseases, diabetes and other conditions.

The remaining $285.8 million will be shared among 13 other research centres.

The Queensland Institute of Medical Research will receive $55 million to build and fit out a new 13-storey facility that will focus on mental health problems such as schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder, as well as tropical diseases and the hunt for new vaccines.

In Melbourne, the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute will get $50 million to research diseases including cerebral palsy and hearing problems, while in Sydney, the Prince of Wales Medical Research Institute will get $30 million to help set up a neuroscience research centre.

The government will also spend $15 million to set up a new Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute in Melbourne, which will research incurable diseases, particularly those affecting the elderly.

All of the total $485.8 million for the program will be spent as one-off grants in this current financial year.

Health Minister Tony Abbott said funding for medical research grants through the National Health and Medical Research Council would have risen to about $700 million per annum by 2009-2010 - a five-fold increase on the level when the Howard Government came to office in 1995-96.

'Green' ANZ CIO wages war on servers

ANZ CIO Peter Dalton is on a mission to remove as many as 400 servers from the bank's infrastructure by the year's end as part of its ambitious environmental targets.

The technology executive has earmarked servers as a chief culprit in carbon emissions and costs, which the bank is trying to reduce in line with its target of being carbon neutral by 2009.

He told the Gartner Datacentre Summit in Sydney that he had found it "quite shocking" to learn that around half the bank's carbon emissions were the result of technology used at the organisation.

ANZ produced 176,410 tonnes of Co2 emissions last year, according to its own numbers.

"We have an obligation and an opportunity to take the lead in our organisations about reducing at least the IT impact on the environment that our organisations have," he said.

May 8, 2007

Stomach band can cure obese of diabetes

A RUBBER band surgically wrapped around the stomach can strip most obese diabetics of their disease as well as their weight, a world-first Australian study has found.

Preliminary results presented at a Melbourne medical conference have shown that lap band surgery, designed to restrict the appetite, will clear three out of four type two diabetics of the condition after two years with the band.

The unpublished 60-person study found that patients who had a body mass index (BMI) over 30 were able to lose 20 per cent of their weight with the surgery.

About 73 per cent went into diabetes 'remission', meaning they no longer required drugs to manage their condition.

In contrast, obese patients who had standard intervention of medication and lifestyle changes had less than two per cent weight loss and only a 13 per cent remission rate.

Study leader Professor Paul O'Brien, one of Australia's leading obesity surgeons, presented the results of the world's first randomised controlled lap band study focusing on the twin disease epidemic of obesity and diabetes to the Royal Australasian College of Physicians annual conference today.

More than 30 per cent of Australians are both diabetic and obese, with experts labelling the syndrome a 'ticking time bomb'.

"Diabesity really is such a major problem for the community and this preliminary data is showing us a solution to that problem,'' said Prof O'Brien, of Monash University.

May 7, 2007

Brain, heal thyself

THERE is growing evidence that an ageing and impaired brain can renew cells and reconfigure itself, giving hope that dementia can be halted and even reversed.

Studies suggest diet, exercise, learning, socialising and drugs can prevent Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia, or at least delay the onset, specialists say in in latest British Journal of Psychiatry.

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And while it was controversial and still speculative, there were also indications these practices could even slow down the disease's progress, said lead author David Burke, a neurologist at St Vincent's Hospital in Sydney.

"There's been a historical tendency for general negativity about dementia and what can be done about it, but that's now out of step with the science," Dr Burke said.

"We suggest that it's time doctors, patients and the public in general adopt a cautious new optimism that we actually can do something to combat it."

Dr Burke and colleagues at the Brain and Mind Institute and the Black Dog Institute made their case in an editorial in the journal.

May 4, 2007

Mom Was Right: Eating Soup Cuts Calorie Intake

Having a bowl of low-calorie soup prior to a meal may help cut your total mealtime intake of amount of food and calories, a new study suggests.

Penn State researchers gave low-calorie soup made of chicken broth, broccoli, potato, cauliflower, carrots and butter to volunteers before they ate a lunch entree.

Diners consumed 20 percent fewer calories when they had both the soup and entree compared to when they did not have soup, the researchers found.

The study authors, who were expected to present their work today at the Experimental Biology meeting in Washington, D.C., tested different forms of the same soup recipe -- separate broth and vegetables, chunky vegetable soup, chunky-pureed vegetable soup, and pureed vegetable soup. All versions of the soup proved equally filling.

"Consuming a first-course of low-calorie soup, in a variety of forms, can help with managing weight, as is shown in this research and earlier studies. Using this strategy allows people to get an extra course at the meal, while eating fewer total calories," researcher Julie Flood, a doctoral student in nutritional sciences, said in a prepared statement.

"But make sure to choose wisely, by picking low-calorie, broth-based soups that are about 100 to 150 calories per serving. Be careful of higher-calorie, cream-based soups that could actually increase the total calories consumed," Flood said.

The study was funded by a grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

May 3, 2007

Tamara McLean: Day care blamed for increase in sick babies

RISING day care use has been blamed for infections being the leading reason babies and toddlers are admitted to hospital.

The nation's largest study of childhood admissions supports international trends showing more young children than ever are succumbing to infections.

Researchers also criticised the increased use of emergency rooms.

The survey of the medical records of 270,000 West Australian children found infectious diseases were the most common cause of children under two being admitted to hospital.

Researchers at the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research found that half of all Aboriginal and one in five non-Aboriginal babies and toddlers had been admitted at least once because of infection.

The most common were respiratory infections, bronchiolitis, pneumonia, ear infection and gastroenteritis, according to the study published in the Paediatric Infectious Disease Journal.

Dr Deborah Lehmann, who heads the institute's infectious diseases unit, said the results supported US studies showing infection rates were increasing significantly among non-indigenous children.

Aboriginal children were three times more likely to be admitted to hospital but these rates were declining, Dr Lehmann said.

Jeremy Laurance: Miracle in sight

British scientists have claimed a world first for a new form of gene therapy that could help the blind to see.

Specialists at University College London and Moorfields Eye Hospital are testing the revolutionary treatment on 12 patients, who are aged between eight and their mid-20s, and have an inherited eye disorder.

The technique has already been shown to work in animals affected by the same disorder, called inherited retinal degeneration, and their sight was restored after treatment.

If proved successful in humans, the scientists hope the technique can be extended to other forms of eye disease that affect hundreds of thousands of people in Britain and millions around the world. Professor Robin Ali, who is leading the research, said it was "very exciting" and represented "a huge step towards establishing gene therapy for the treatment of many different eye conditions".

But the professor warned that the work was at an early stage aimed at establishing the safety and efficacy of gene transfer to the eye, and that gene therapy for many common conditions including macular degeneration, which affects about 500,000 mainly elderly people in Britain, was many years away.

Professor Ali, the head of the division of molecular therapy at UCL's Institute of Ophthalmology said: "If we can establish the technique of delivering genes to the retina, it paves the way for applying it to other inherited disorders for which there is currently no treatment. Then in the longer term that could open the way to the treatment of common conditions such as macular degeneration, for which there are treatments but which aren't particularly good.

May 2, 2007

Brandon Keim: Hacking Your Body's Bacteria for Better Health

Modern humans are bacteria-killing machines. We assassinate microbes with hand soap, mouthwash and bathroom cleaners. It feels clean and right.

But some scientists say we're overdoing it. All this killing may actually cause diseases like eczema, irritable bowel syndrome and even diabetes. The answer, they say, is counterintuitive: Feed patients bacteria.

"Probiotics (pills containing bacteria) have resulted in complete elimination of eczema in 80 percent of the people we've treated," says Dr. Joseph E. Pizzorno Jr., a practicing physician and former member of the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy. Pizzorno says he's used probiotics to treat irritable bowel disease, acne and even premenstrual syndrome. "It's unusual for me to see a patient with a chronic disease that doesn't respond to probiotics."

Clinical trial data on probiotics is incomplete, but there are many indications that hacking the body's bacteria is beneficial.

In sheer numbers, bacterial cells in the body outnumber our own by a factor of 10, with 50 trillion bacteria living in the digestive system alone, where they've remained largely unstudied until the last decade. As scientists learn more about them, they're beginning to chart the complex symbiosis between the tiny bugs and our health.

"The microbes that live in the human body are quite ancient," says NYU Medical Center microbiologist Dr. Martin Blaser, a pioneer in gut microbe research. "They've been selected (through evolution) because they help us."

And it now appears that our daily antibacterial regimens are disrupting a balance that once protected humans from health problems, especially allergies and malfunctioning immune responses.

May 1, 2007

Aussies make solar power cell breakthrough

CHEAPER solar power could be available in a few years due to pioneering work by Australian scientists on an improved solar cell.

Researchers at the University of New South Wales ARC Photovoltaics Centre of Excellence have developed a means of increasing the cell's light-trapping ability by up to 50 per cent.

They say that apart from a home's cooking and hot-water heating needs, such improvement to an electric solar system could power an average house with panels covering 10 square metres.

"Overall, our new solar cells increase power generated by 30 per cent," said Dr Kylie Catchpole, co-author of the study.

As part of the process, UNSW researchers, led by Phd student Supriya Pillai, place a thin film (about 10 nanometres thick) of silver onto a solar cell and heat it to 200C.

The film breaks into tiny 100-nanometre "islands" of silver and raises its light-trapping efficiency.

With this the team can move from thick expensive silicon "wafers" to cheaper "thin film" cells with less silicon.

"Most thin-film solar cells are between eight and 10 per cent efficient, but the new technique could increase efficiency to between 13 and 15 per cent," Dr Catchpole said.

"If they're below 10 per cent efficient, then you can't really afford to install them, because it would take up too much of your roof area, for example, to power your house."